Debra L. Lee
2019 Woman of Influence
With a trailblazing career spanning over 3 decades, Debra L. Lee is arguably one of the most influential female voices in the entertainment industry. Up until May 2018, Lee served as the Chairman & CEO of BET Networks, the leading provider of entertainment for the African-American audience and consumers of Black culture globally.
During her tenure, Lee helmed BET’s reinvigorated approach to corporate philanthropy & authentic programming that led to hits such as The New Edition Story, Being Mary Jane, The BET Awards, Black Girls Rock!, BET Honors and many more.
In September 2009, Lee managed the launch of Centric, a 24-hour music and entertainment network. Under her guidance, Centric was rebranded in 2014 as the first network designed for Black women. She also oversees the company’s current growth initiatives, including international distribution of the brand in Canada, the Caribbean, the United Kingdom, France, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.
Prior to her being named Chairman and CEO, Lee was President and COO of BET Networks for almost 10 years, during which she guided the company to consistent increases in viewership, revenue, and earnings. She first joined BET as Vice President and General Counsel in 1986 after serving more than five years as an attorney with Steptoe & Johnson, a Washington D. C. based corporate law firm. Prior to that, she served as a law clerk to the late Honorable Barrington Parker of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.
Named one of The Hollywood Reporter’s 100 Most Powerful Women in Entertainment and Billboard’s Power 100, Lee’s achievements in her 30+ year career in the industry have earned her numerous accolades from across the cable industry, as well as recognition as one of this country’s most respected business executives. Lee was honored with the Distinguished Leadership Vanguard Award by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and was inducted into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame.
In February 2017, the GRAMMY Organization recognized Lee with the Salute To Industry Icons Award, on behalf of her major contributions to American music and culture. Lee is currently the first and only woman to receive the distinguished honor.
Lee is a committed philanthropist, holding a position on The Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, serving as President; is a member emeritus of the FCC’s Advisory Committee on Diversity for Communications in the Digital Age; and sits on the Board of Trustees for the American Film Institute, Brown University’s Center for Slavery & Justice, The Paley Center for Media, and The USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.
Additionally, she serves on the Board of Directors for former President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Alliance and in 2011 was appointed by President Obama to the White House Management Advisory Board during his tenure. Lee also currently sits on the Board of Directors for corporations like Twitter, Marriot and Washington Gas Light.
Lee earned her Juris doctorate at Harvard Law School, while simultaneously earning a master’s degree in public policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government. She graduated from Brown University with a bachelor’s degree in political science with an emphasis in Asian politics. In 2014 she was awarded with a Doctor of Humane Letters (L.H.D.) from Brown University.